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ISRAEL: Officials to testify on flotilla events Monday amid intrigue and police investigation

August 8, 2010 | 12:34 pm

Somehow, summertime in the Middle East is accident-prone. From military misadventures to political predicaments and diplomatic disasters, the heat just seems to fry judgment.

The interception of the Gaza flotilla left a sour taste in Israel’s mouth, and left politicians, soldiers and citizens confused about whose fault "it" all is. The international community also has questions, although their "it" differs from the agenda of Israelis, who want to know who put soldiers as risk and the nation at diplomatic peril, compromising a whole range of important interests from immediate security tactics  to long-range strategic defense. Plus, it ruined the plans of around half a million Israelis who would have gone on vacation to Turkey.

So people want the proverbial head on a platter. And when their  heads are at risk, officials instinctively reach out to cover the other end.

In June, an inquiry committee was established. Its official title -- The Independent Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of 31.5.10 -- is language’s way of nicely reflecting the basic disagreement over what committee to appoint and what its mandate shall be.  Israelis just call it the Turkel commission, after its chairman.  It could have been called the Anything But Another United Nations’ Human Rights Commission That Produced The Goldstone Report Commission -- but that’s too long.

An army probe already finished its work from the military aspect.  Giora Eiland found mistakes in planning, intelligence and information integration but found commandos' actions appropriate under operational circumstances. Soldiers will not be questioned by the Turkel commission, which has the army's report.

Starting Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi will be testifying before the Turkel commission, amid much scrambling for a foothold in public opinion and now scandal too.

Eiland’s report, which didn't publicly point fingers at anyone in the army, was understood by many to suggest the blame resided with the political echelon. But recent leaks from an exclusive parliamentary forum suggest he was critical of the army and his team didn't believe the army could pass the blame onto the political ranks.  Now there’s demand for yet another investigation -- how information leaked from the usually watertight special subcommittee.

The version war between the army and government started soon after the flotilla mess, with both sides giving off an "I-told-you-so" attitude. 

Relations between Barak and Ashkenazi have been tense before, often instigated by interested parties in both sides’ posses. But what happened over the weekend really takes the cake—and might take the stand too.

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Ashkenazi's term is up in six months, and these days Barak is busy interviewing candidates for the next chief of staff.  On prime time Friday, Channel 2 reported on a manipulative strategic campaign to name the next chief of staff while pretty much re-branding the popular Ashkenazi as, well, a loser, and rendering him a lame duck for the rest of his term.

The undated document bore the logo of Eyal Arad's office. Arad is the leading political strategist in the country, considered close to opposition leader Tzippi Livni and the opposite with Netanyahu. He denied involvement in a campaign to appoint Yoav Galant, currently in charge of the IDF’s southern command, as Ashkenazi’s replacement. The document was a fake, he said, volunteering the firm's computers for inspection and staff for a polygraph test. He filed a complaint with the police.

Selecting the chief of staff has never been pretty, but it’s never been this ugly before. Whether the document is genuine or forged, whether someone’s actually pushing Galant or reverse-spinning to trip up his candidacy, it’s causing outrage over bringing dirty politics to a place that cannot afford them. "Red lines crossed,” and “earthquake” were some of the phrases in Sunday’s papers.

Senior politicians and ex-military expressed shock, demanding an immediate investigation and suspension of the interviews. The scandal festered over the weekend, conveniently exempting officials from comment. On Sunday, Netanyahu instructed the attorney general to investigate what is now dubbed "the Galant document." The AG froze the appointment process.

The whole affair presents a new low. And turning Ashkenazi into a lame duck right before he, Barak and Netanyahu testify before the Turkel commission just smells plain bad.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Video: Flotilla timeline, as presented by Giora Eiland's team. Credit: IDF.

Bottom photo: Chief of staff of general staff, Lt. Gen.Gabi Ashkenazi, right, with Italy's Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Vincenzo Camporini during a visit to the Italian armed forces in July. Credit: IDF.

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